Weekly Columns

A retired Colonel in the Arkansas National Guard recently shared his frustration with missing the signs of mental health struggles among a former soldier under his command. Similar tragedies are happening daily across the country, but veterans – who represent about eight percent of Arkansas’s population –are particularly vulnerable. Sadly, they account for about 20 percent of suicides in our state. This is why we are working to fully understand the risk factors associated with suicide among veterans and to improve coordination of veteran mental health and suicide prevention services to change this tragic statistic.  

Congress has taken steps to improve access and treatment for veterans at risk of suicide. That includes significant funding increases to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to decrease veteran suicide rates. In Fiscal Year 2010, the VA requested $62 million for suicide prevention outreach. That number nearly quadrupled to $222 million within ten years. Despite the sharp increase in resources, 20 veterans commit suicide each day. That number has unfortunately remained roughly unchanged. Only six of those 20 veterans are receiving healthcare services at the VA. This points to a significant need to empower the VA to work through community partners to expand outreach.  

National data indicate that more than 50,000 organizations provide suicide prevention services for veterans, yet they are hard for veterans to find, access, apply for and use. The VA and these organizations share a common goal of saving the lives of veterans, but lack the framework and authority to coordinate their efforts. 

That’s why I’m pushing the VA to improve information sharing between the department and veteran-serving nonprofits. I recently partnered with Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) to introduce legislation that would enable the VA to harness the potential of what is already occurring in communities by allowing it to provide grant funding to nonprofits and local organizations for expanded outreach to veterans.The IMPROVE Wellbeing for Veterans Act enhances coordination and planning of veteran mental health and suicide prevention services and would better measure the effectiveness of these programs in order to reduce the alarming number of veteran suicides.  

The VA has a real opportunity to work with its partners to develop a tool that can be used to measure not just what services were made available to a veteran, but the effectiveness of the programs.As I talk with veteran-serving groups that provide suicide prevention assistance, I am more convinced that we can work together to create and use a standard measurement tool that helps us in this area. Some nonprofit groups have implemented their own tools to track progress and monitor the results of their veteran suicide prevention programs. The VA should examine how it can work with partners to develop or adopt a measurement tool that would be used uniformly across all groups. This will allow the VA and its partners to identify which suicide prevention efforts are having the most impact so that resources can be concentrated effectively.  

The legislation has been well-received. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie expressed his support for our bill, calling it “key” to unlocking the veteran suicide crisis. Representatives Jack Bergman (R-MI) and Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives. We must continue this momentum. 

Empowering veteran-serving nonprofits in addition to state and local organizations to work together in the fight against veteran suicide will ensure that we reach more veterans with more effective services so that we can break the trend of veteran suicide.